Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Seeking my successful sit spot

I really enjoy identifying, perusing, obtaining, talking about, and even writing about good information resources. I've amassed a very nice collection of permaculture-related books, and a good start of a collection of naturalist skills books covering plant identification and use, foraging guides, bird identification by sight, bird identification by song, detailed life histories of birds, tracking guides, insect guides, mammal guides, reptilian and amphibian guides, mushroom guides, etc. But I haven't even cracked open many of the books, and I've put even fewer of them to any real use! I've reminded myself lately that at some point I need to say "enough already" with the resource accumulation, and actually get my ass outside to learn in the only way that ultimately matters, through direct experience. Not that books can't help point the way and help answer certain kinds of questions...but they don't substitute for experiencing the real world.

I also notice that I spend way more time on the internet than I want to, feeding my internal information junky its information fix. Every day I make the rounds of the news sites, discovering that yep, peak oil has still peaked, the housing bubble is still popping, the US dollar is still declining, the broad economy is still breaking apart on the rocks, we're still so very doomed, the Tribe of Anthropik is still on vacation, and Ran Prieur still posts about five minutes worth of reading every other day or so. Then, unless I feel especially motivated by some other project or Theressa kicks me off the computer, I start the cycle again, reloading the same damn sites in case anything has updated while I was checking the others. I want to start feeding my information junky good clean data about the birds and the bees instead of all this internet porn! (See the October 29 entry for the porn bits.)

So between yesterday and today, I spent many hours poking around for a sit spot at Whitaker Ponds. Tonight I'll just write up a quick description of how a sit spot works (or at least, how I intend to use it). I'll write more in a future post about my search and/or details about the spot I find. And I'll probably post a lot after that with specific stories from my sit spot!

I plan to use my sit spot to jump-start nature awareness. I'll find a comfortable and safe place outside where I can sit, stretch out, and simply observe. I'll go there every day (or damn near) to gain an intimate feel for one particular spot, becoming acquainted with the birds and plants and the bolder land-based animals like squirrels who call it home. Eventually I'll also learn about the reclusive or nocturnal mammals and other land animals who live there, mostly from tracks and signs. I'll cart along field guides as needed, to begin to match visual sightings with names in books. I'll compare the bird calls I hear at my spot to tapes and CDs at home to increase my bird song recognition skills.

I'll visit my sit spot for at least the next year, giving me insight not only into day to day changes, but into the big-picture seasonal life patterns of everyone who lives around the spot. I'll see plants come into leaf, flower, fruit, disperse their seed, and go dormant or die. I'll see some birds migrate away to rejoin us again next year. I might see young birds of year-round residence taking their first flights, and watch them grow older to find a mate, make a nest, and teach another generation of young. Maybe I'll even read tracks well enough to see some of the same patterns in the land-based residents of the place.

I've never had much trouble sitting still, but only because I usually live in my head (moreso in the past than now, but I still spend most of my time there.) Whether I read a book or set my brain to work puzzling over some problem, I go inside almost wherever I am and whatever I'm doing. That instinct has helped me through my life to hide from scary or threatening situations outside, but it also left me with minimal observational skills or awareness of my surroundings. Unless I specifically focus on what's around me, turning my sensory input into data to be processed by my brain, I tend to miss all the details around me. The past two years of urban foraging have given me the ability to recognize many food plants without trying, while simply walking or biking along as usual. So I feel pretty confident that I can switch from an internal existence to living in the real world, and sitting at my sit spot and deliberately opening up to the world around me should help a lot. To that end, I'll practice specific sensory enhancement excercises, to better use my senses of vision and taste and feel and sound and smell.

Although at this point I really dislike the idea, I'll at least try journaling. In his various books and tapes, Jon Young speaks and writes about the major benefits of writing down experiences, drawing maps, doing write-ups of track analyses or specific sequences of observations, etc. I never enjoyed taking notes in school (and usually didn't bother) and hate writing in general (hence the infrequency of my emails to friends and family, and the not-really-daily daily updates to this blog). But I'll give some of Young's recommended journaling excercises a fair try. If they do help with my learning process as much as he suggests, I'll try to figure out how to do them in such a way that I can enjoy it.

Although I expect to move out of the city within the next couple of years, and will leave behind the particular spot I'll have learned so well, the lessons of plant and animal life, the practice in opening myself up, and the ability to use all my senses with greater awareness should translate well to wherever we go to pursue our permaculture/hunter-gatherer life.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sedentism, food storage, climate, human evolution, & half-baked theories

I don't have anything informative to write tonight, as I just blew all my energy researching a question to which I still have no good answers or even new pointers: what, if any, relationship do coldish (or temperate?) climates have to food storage, sedentism, warfare, and hierarchy in human cultures? I'll write more about hierarchy in future posts, as the current question came up for me because I want to understand why, when, and how hierarchy and other traits I perceive as negative arise in cultures. But for now I'll write a bit about my non-answers to the more specific question of climate's influence.

I read in Matson & Coupland's The Prehistory of the Northwest Coast that humans didn't migrate north of about 40 degrees latitude until about 40,000 years ago when they learned to make custom-fit clothes allowing them to brave colder environments. The authors made this statement as an aside, so didn't really go into much detail. After reading this, I wondered whether modern and ancestral human confinement to tropical and subtropical areas, where they could hunt and gather food pretty reliably all year long, resulted in evolution for not just hunting & gathering, but specifically fully nomadic hunting & gathering?

I say "fully nomadic" to distinguish from the semi-sedentary pattern seen both on the Pacific Northwest coast, and inland among the Kalapuya and, I think, of other inland people in northern California. The concentrated rainy season here would give a lot of incentive to adopt a lifestyle in which you actively gather resources during the dry and warm part of the year, and hunker down and relax under shelter during the wet and cold part. I assume tribes in other areas (of the US or of the world) also had semi-sedentary lives, but I don't know enough to find other examples yet. As I explore that more, I'll pay attention to the difference between horticultural tribes (cultivating certain patches of soil best suited to staple calorie production, thus setting up somewhat permanent residence around that resource) vs hunter-gatherers, relying more completely on nature's provision, with less intensive management techniques such as burning.

People in the Pacific Northwest had permanent houses in winter villages, which they used year after year. Some people, along the coast where they had water access to move things by canoe & raft, even had multiple house frames in different spots, and moved the planks of their houses from site to site through the year. Others migrated from the spring to the fall to different temporary, seasonal camps, but returned to their permanent houses for the winter. I imagine some people may have left their villages totally empty during the migratory part of the year, but others may have had people (maybe elderly?) in residence throughout the year, or tag-teams of coming and departing groups on resource-gathering expeditions.

I think that sedentism (semi- or full-) depends on food storage, since otherwise your group would seriously deplete the local environment as natural resources become scarcest through those winter months. FBy contrast, fully nomadic groups might travel in larger bands during the plentiful months, when ample game and plants could support a relatively high population density in a given spot. But for winter, they would break up into smaller groups, each group dispersing to take advantage of resources inadequate for the full, large group. The archaeological evidence suggests that for the first few thousand years after migrating into the region, pacific northwest people lived fully nomadic lives, leaving behind no evidence of permanent houses. Eventually they entered the pattern of semi-sedentism which continued until European contact.

People in tropical and subtropical areas don't have to deal with major seasonal shifts in food availability, so they wouldn't have much incentive to stay in one spot beyond its temporal carrying capacity. Why go to the trouble of preserving, storing, and safeguarding food when you know that you can always go out and find what you need, no matter what day of the year?

So, if we evolved as fully nomadic hunter-gatherers, with cultures which encouraged resource distribution amongst the tribe rather than stocking food away for lean times, what effect did storing food and settling down for the winter have? Could that explain the development of those traits I associate with civilization and with horticulturalists: hierarchy, slavery, and warfare?

Now that I've explained my question, I'll leave it at that for tonight. But I'll follow up soon with my feeble explorations of the answer!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Book Review: The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer

I've been meaning to write up a glowing review of this book for some months now, because I absolutely love it! I've bought, checked out from the library, and flipped through more than a dozen foraging guides, but as soon as I started looking through this one I knew it had value way above and beyond any of the others and that I had to buy it. Why? The details! I love details! And this book has them!

The book starts with coverage of general topics related to foraging, such as safety in identification and sampling; differences of harvest, timing, and use of different plant parts (leaves, roots, seeds, etc); processing and storage techniques; and the shortcomings of most of the foraging literature to date. After extensive coverage of these sorts of topics, with a lot of useful information I haven't seen elsewhere, Thayer spends 32 chapters detailing 32 plants (a few more actually, since he covers some closely related plants together in the same chapter). For each plant, he includes multiple high-quality color photos of the given species plus lookalikes where applicable, gives a detailed description of multiple parts of the plant highlighting key identification traits, lays out the range and habitat, and describes his personal experiences (and sometimes information from existing literature where useful) harvesting, preparing, eating, and storing the plant. Very few books I've seen rely primarily on the author's personal experiences, and of those, even fewer go anywhere near as in-depth as Thayer does.

Thayer lives in Wisconsin, so we in the Pacific Northwest might not find all the plants he describes in the wild here. But we will find more than half of them out here, and of the rest, I have several on my list to deliberately cultivate (including Ramps (Allium tricoccum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia sp.), ground bean or hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), and Groundnut or hopniss (Apios americana)...maybe also wild rice). So the book has great relevance all around. So far the book has helped me immensely in harvesting wapato (Sagittaria latifolia), describing the best way to muck about in the swamp so as to actually get lots of tubers, not freeze my butt off. And the book's descriptions of processing small seeds has helped me a lot with amaranth and dock harvesting.

My only complaint about the book is that it doesn't cover enough species! But Thayer is working on that, with a second book due out in a year or two. In the meantime, I'll just content myself with rereading the details to pick up all the info I missed the first time or two through!

Table of contents of the book:

    • Introduction
    • The Meaning of Wild Food
    • The Purpose and Organization of this book
    • The History of Foraging and Wild Food Literature
  • Getting Started With Edible Wild Plants
    • Why Forage?
    • Conservation
    • Where to Forage
    • Cooking With Wild Food
  • Plant Identification and Foraging Safety
  • Harvest and Preparation Methods for Wild Plant Foods
    • Greens
    • Shoots and Stalks
    • Underground Vegetables
    • Fruits and Berries
    • Seeds and Grains
    • Nuts
  • Storing Wild Foods
    • Freezing
    • Canning
    • Drying
    • Cold storage
  • Timing the Wild Harvest
    • Calendar
  • Plant Accounts
    • Ostrich Fern
    • Cattail
    • Wapato, Arrowhead
    • Wild Rice
    • Wild Leek, Ramp
    • Smilax, Carrion Flower
    • Butternut
    • Siberian Elm
    • Stinging Nettle
    • Wood Nettle
    • Sheep Sorrel
    • Goosefoot, Lamb's Quarters
    • Spring Beauty
    • Marsh Marigold, Cowslip
    • Swamp Saxifrage
    • Serviceberry, Juneberry, Saskatoon
    • Chokecherry
    • Pin Cherry
    • Ground Bean, Hog Peanut
    • Hopniss, Groundnut
    • Black Locust
    • Sumac
    • Wild Grape
    • Basswood, Linden
    • Evening Primrose
    • Parsnip
    • Common Milkweed
    • Virginia Waterleaf
    • Nannyberry, Wild Raisin, Black Haw
    • Highbush Cranberry
    • Burdock
    • Thistle
    • References and Recommended Reading
    • Bibliography
    • Glossary
    • Index

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Highlights from The World of the Kalapuya

Yesterday I mentioned the book The World of the Kalapuya: A Native People of Western Oregon. Today I wanted to write up some of the highlights I found most interesting.


I hadn't realized that hazelnuts grew in abundance, maintained along with oaks in the grassland savannahs via prescribed burns by the Kalapuya. The natives harvested the hazelnuts in July or August while still green, then spread them out to dry for 3-4 days. That may give us the best chance of beating the squirrels to them!

The Kalapuya collected grasshoppers, conveniently killed and pre-cooked by the deliberately set grassland fires. Apparently they could store the grasshoppers for the winter, which I hadn't expected. I don't think I've read anywhere else about people storing insects for the winter. Unfortunately, the book doesn't give any details on whether the grasshoppers required further processing for storage.

The Kalapuya ate yellow jacket larvae! When they found a yellowjacket nest, they built a fire on top of it, which drove off or killed the adults. Then they dug up the nest and ate the roasted larvae or stored them for later eating. The next time I visit Mossback Farm (where I interned a couple of years ago) in the summer we'll have to try this one out!

I learned of a staple food I'd never heard of before! Apparently natives harvested multiple bushels per family of the seed of tarweed, Madia sp. (in the Composite family). Again, the natives used set fires to aid in harvest; the fires burned off the tar-like bits and loosened the seeds for easy collecting. I definitely need to seek out this plant and try eating its seeds!

The book mentions Kalapuya harvesting camas shoots in March for boiling. I don't understand whether they boiled and ate the green shoots, or if they boiled the root (or maybe the root and the shoot?) Plants for a Future database doesn't say anything about edibility of the leaves or young shoots...

I read of another bulb the natives ate, called Cat's ear or Pussy's ear in this book. Pojar calls it Subalpine Mariposa Lily or Mountain Cat's Ear, and gives the botanical name Calochortus tolmiei.

List of some of the other lesser-known plant foods mentioned in the book: camas, wild onion, wapato, yampah, wild carrot, cow parsnip, Lomatium sp., skunk cabbage (people probably ate it more as an early spring desperation food than for any gourmet qualities), lupine roots, cattails, wild mint and yerba buena, balsamroot, and ferns (especially bracken).

I found it interesting that very few salmon ran past Chinook territory, which ended at the Willamette Falls. Only in times of heavy enough rain for salmon to jump the falls and continue further up the Willamette did Kalapuya bands have access to salmon within their own territory. The Kalapuya did trade for salmon and paid to fish for salmon in other tribes territories, and bands on the west side of the Willamette probably had access to salmon runs in the coast range waterways. They also fished for some other species found in their territories. But they never developed a culture centered around salmon the same way other Pacific Northwest tribes did.


The Kalapuya lived semi-sedentary lives, with main villages inhabited year round but with many temporary camps in different places from spring through fall to harvest, hunt, and fish seasonal resources. The permanent houses sound similar to others on the coast, built with wood framing and using planks, bark, grass, and dirt as siding, roofing, and insulation materials. They included opening(s) in the roof above the hearth(s) inside for heating and lighting. They usually built large houses for multiple families to share.

If temporary camps needed any shelter at all, the Kalapuya built quick & easy huts and windbreaks using brush, rushes, grasses, and branches of conifers. Sometimes they used mats (usually made of tule, maybe of other materials too?) which they carried from site to site to make temporary shelters. (They also used these mats for sleeping on and as dividers between different families in the permanent houses in the main village.)


I've read of some cultures where whites introducing competive games got funny looks or got killed for bringing in such a horrible concept. The book describes a hocky-like stick & ball game played by the Kalapuya. But the book doesn't give enough details or explore the culture of the game enough for me to know whether this clearly represented competition in a way some other cultures didn't have. (The book does quote an unidentified writer as saying '... the rules were that there were no rules.' and the book continues "People got hurt--sometimes seriously.")

Storytelling, as with all indigenous cultures without written language, carried the history and knowledge and wisdom of the tribe from one generation to the next. I found this interesting: "Storytellers followed rules which insured that stories were told correctly. In some bands, a story could not be told unless there were three people who knew it well. These experts could correct the storyteller if he or she made a mistae so that it would not be perpetuated."


This seems worth typing up almost verbatim from the book:

September: First month of the Kalapuya year. Small groups are still living in their summer camps scattered across the valley, collecting acorns, berries, and camas roots. Prairie burning begins for tarweed seed harvesting.

October: Month when "hair [leaves] falls off." Wapato harvest time begins in the northern Willamette Valley, and the northern Kalapuya groups move to camps close to the lakes where the wapato grows. Groups in the southern Valley complete their camas harvesting.

November: Approaching winter. The Kalapuya prepare their winter homes for the coming cold weather.

December: "Good month." The weather becomes colder but is still mild. The Kalapuya settle into their villages for the winter.

January: Month of "burned breast". The winter becomes cold and the old people sit so close to the house fires that their chests get singed. The Kalapuya spend much time in their winter houses, feeding the fires. Winter dances begin.

Februrary: "Out of provision month." The end of winter finds the Kalapuya short on stored provisions, and it is a lean time. Hunters spend more time in the woods trying to find game.

March: First spring. People begin to leave the winter village, making short camping trips to gather food, including the first shoots of camas, which are only finger high at this time.

April: "Budding month." The Kalapuya make more trips onto the valley floor to gather roots as the camas grows higher.

May: "Flower time." The camas begins blossoming as the Kalapuya leave their winter houses to camp out for the summer. The spring runs of salmon head up the Willamette River and its tributaries.

June: Month of camas harvesting. The camas becomes fully ripe. The women begin to gather and dry camas bulbs for the following winter, an activity pursued until September or October. The people also "catch all sorts of fish". Berry picking begins.

July: "Half-summer time." Weather is hot and dry. The Kalapuya begin to collect hazelnuts and caterpillars.

August: End of summer. The weather remains hot as the people continue to gather a variety of berries, nuts, and roots in preparation for the winter.